That Seanad Éireann notes:
"Putting Children First"— A discussion document on mandatory reporting of child abuse.
Vol. 146 No. 15
That Seanad Éireann notes:
"Putting Children First"— A discussion document on mandatory reporting of child abuse.
It gives me great pleasure to open this debate today and I welcome the opportunity to address all the issues raised by Putting Children First, the discussion document on mandatory reporting.
Yesterday, an act of indescribable brutality and evil occurred in a school in Scotland when 16 infants and their teacher were brutally murdered. The grief, anguish, human loss, suffering and hopeless questioning can only be guessed at. As Minister of State with special responsibility for children, I sent a message to the Secretary of State for Scotland offering my sincere condolences to him and the parents and relatives of those so brutally slain and injured. I know the Seanad will join with me in this sincere expression of sympathy.
Mandatory reporting would involve placing designated professionals under a legal obligation to report known or suspected cases of abuse to the authorities. The purpose of Putting Children First is to stimulate debate on the many, and indeed complex, issues which surround the introduction of mandatory reporting of child abuse. Therefore, I welcome this morning's debate as an important contribution to the consultation process I launched on 29 February last. My aim over the next few months is to learn from the views and experience of others, to gain fresh insights and perspectives on the many issues that surround mandatory reporting. I am under no illusions about the complexity of the task at hand.
Let me be very clear at the outset as to what my objectives are. First, I want to promote and protect the welfare of children — their interests are my paramount concern. Second, I am anxious to establish whether mandatory reporting would be a useful addition to the range of measures that currently exist to protect children from abuse. Third, I want to reach a consensus on how the best interests of the child can be protected in the arrangements we make for the reporting of child abuse.
I want to stress at the outset that in initiating this consultative process on mandatory reporting, these are the only parameters which I have set myself. I currently have an open mind in relation to the introduction of mandatory reporting. I hope the consultative process which Putting Children First will stimulate will encourage widespread debate on both mandatory reporting and the wider issues involved in the protection of children from abuse.
The discussion document presents the case for and against mandatory reporting in an impartial way. The first chapter sets out the current position in relation to reporting of child abuse. The guidelines for the notification of suspected cases of abuse between the health boards and Garda, and also the procedures recently published by the Catholic Church, have been significant recent additions to these procedures.
Chapter two of the document presents the recommendations for mandatory reporting of the Law Reform Commission and the Kilkenny incest investigation team. Attention is drawn to the importance of defining the nature of the abuse to be reported. Differences between the recommendations of the Law Reform Commission and the Kilkenny team are also discussed.
Chapter three examines the arrangements for reporting child abuse in other countries. The experience in the United States, where mandatory reporting has been in force for over 20 years, is of particular interest. There has been a huge increase in the number of cases reported, but the number of unsubstantiated cases has increased equally dramatically. The Americans are now looking at a number of changes in their laws to try to improve the operation of mandatory reporting. These include changes in the definition of abuse and sanctions for malicious reporting.
Chapter four poses the questions which must be answered before any decisions can be taken on the introduction of mandatory reporting. I propose to address some of the key issues involved.
I would like to start with the question "Why introduce mandatory reporting of child abuse?". The main reason is the belief that mandatory reporting would lead to more cases of child abuse coming to light and, thus, to protection of a greater number of children. It is argued that at present there is under-reporting of child abuse by professionals. On the other hand, we know awareness of child abuse has grown considerably in recent years. The number of reported cases of child abuse has increased from 1,646 cases in 1987 to over 4,600 in 1994, an increase of over 180 per cent.
If there is under-reporting by professionals, why is this the case? Part of the problem may be due to an unwillingness to intervene in people's private lives and a general reticence about the whole area of child abuse. Another reason suggested is fear of legal liability. There is no doubt that as a society we are becoming more and more litigious and staff may have considerable fears on this point. A further issue is the confidentiality of therapeutic relationships. Finally, professionals need to be convinced that if they report, effective action will be taken and the position of the child will be improved. This is why it is so important to have the infrastructure and back-up of our child care services firmly in place.
The background to the introduction of mandatory reporting in the United States was that physicians were on uncertain ground in breaching confidentiality to make reports of suspected child abuse. The original objective of mandatory reporting laws was to promote reporting by physicians of serious physical abuse. Over the years, both the number of professionals required to report and the types of maltreatment involved have been expanded. Public attention in this country has tended to focus on sexual abuse of children. I was surprised when I visited the US in January to discover only 11 per cent of confirmed cases of child abuse in 1994 involved sexual abuse. A far greater proportion — almost 50 per cent — were in the category of neglect. One of the criticisms of mandatory reporting in the US has been that it has led to an explosion in child abuse reports, many of which have not been substantiated.
A final point I would like to make in regard to the US experience is to point out that their approach to child protection is very legalistic. We need to consider whether we want a legal rather than a good practice obligation on professionals to report suspected abuse. Mandatory reporting could lead to an over-reliance on legal procedures, leaving no room for professional judgment. It is worth nothing that other European countries, such as Germany, the Netherlands and Belgium, which have high quality child welfare services, do not have a system of mandatory reporting. I have some fears that if our child protection system becomes over-legalistic, this could work to the detriment of victims. For example, a child may have to undergo the ordeal of multiple interviews for legal rather than therapeutic purposes.
If mandatory reporting is to be introduced, then we must examine whether it should be limited to child sexual abuse or should extend to other forms of child abuse, including physical abuse — non-accidental injury — emotional abuse and neglect. Furthermore, if there is to be mandatory reporting of neglect, should it extend to wilful neglect only or include unintentional neglect? Previous recommendations regarding the introduction of mandatory reporting have differed in this regard. The Law Reform Commission, reflecting its terms of reference, recommended the introduction of a mandatory reporting requirement in respect of child sexual abuse. The Kilkenny incest investigation team recommended the mandatory reporting of all forms of child abuse and that a clear definition of what is to be reported should be provided in guidelines to designated personnel.
There can be problems with less serious and unfounded cases being reported. For example, I was told that in the United States a mother with a "messy home" might be reported. We would certainly want to avoid that type of overreaction. There is no doubt that neglect is a particularly difficult area to define. There may be cultural differences or varying tolerance levels of what would be considered neglect. The important thing is to ensure that the serious cases of abuse are brought to the attention of the authorities.
Any mandatory reporting law would have to be precise on whether a suspicion or knowledge should create a legal obligation for a professional to report. The Law Reform Commission recommended that the obligation should arise when the mandated reporter knows or has good reason to believe, while the Kilkenny team considered that suspicion should be sufficient.
One of the most difficult issues raised in Putting Children First relates to the reporting of under-age sexual activity. At present the age of consent to what may be termed more minor forms of sexual activity is 15 years. However, the age of consent to actual or attempted sexual intercourse, to buggery or to sexual behaviour by a male with another male is 17 years. The Child Care Act, 1991, defines a child as a person under 18 years unless married and provokes the question as to whether all under-age sexual activity should be subject to reporting. Some people may consider that consensual sexual activity between young people should not be subject to mandatory reporting despite the fact that it is unlawful.
I have previously drawn attention to the position in relation to pregnant girls under 17 years. In the context of a mandatory reporting requirement, they represent a particularly difficult dilemma. On the one hand, such pregnancies are direct evidence that a crime has been committed by the male involved. However, the danger is that if the pregnancies were to be subject to mandatory reporting, it might deter young pregnant women from seeking medical attention or increase the pressure for them to seek an abortion. The House will share my concern to avoid such a tragic scenario.
It has been suggested that mandatory reporting could damage the trust inherent in many professional relationships, such as doctor/patient and teacher/pupil relationships, and could place an unnecessary spotlight of attention on the victim who discloses abuse rather than the perpetrator. It may well be that the principle of confidentiality is not considered sacrosanct. However, I must considered whether there are circumstances in which client/professional confidentiality should not be breached.
It might also be that mandatory reporting could discourage some parents/guardians from seeking professional attention for their children if they believe — rightly or wrongly — that the child's condition, no matter what the cause, might lead a professional to report automatically any suspicions of abuse to the health board or the Garda. We must not lose sight of the fact that in this country we are privileged to have an excellent and dedicated core of child care staff. They are responsible people who act in the best interests of children. The last thing we need is a crude and coercive measure which will leave them feeling powerless in the face of their traumatic dealings in cases of child abuse.
Mandatory reporting could challenge the whole aim of our therapeutic counselling services. If reporting were to lead to legal action, then victims may have to confront their abuse and possibly even their abusers with the attendant risk of trauma which such an encounter might provoke. The aim of therapeutic counselling is to support clients, not force confrontations. Professionals may decide that a child is in too fragile a mental state to endure a confrontational situation. In such cases, it may be perceived to be in the best interests of the child not to report cases of child abuse, but to concentrate solely on the provision of therapeutic care. In considering mandatory reporting I must decide whether to allow for any form of professional discretion in such matters.
Another issue which Putting Children First raises is whether mandatory reporting might apply to current child abuse only or whether it should apply to cases where an adult alleges abuse during his/her childhood, perhaps 20 or more years before. If cases where the victim is now an adult come to the attention of health board personnel or other designated reporters, should it be mandatory for such cases to be reported to the Garda or should the consent of the victim be required? At present, the investigation of cases of child abuse disclosed by the victim as an adult is seen as primarily a matter for the Garda and the enforcement of the criminal law. In this regard, I understand that the Garda are unable to proceed with a criminal investigation unless they receive a formal complaint from the victim. I have some concerns that if I was to introduce a mandatory reporting requirement that was to include abuse that happened many years previously, many victims in need of therapeutic counselling might not seek the help they require.
The Child Care Act, 1991, defines a child as a person under the age of 18 years, other than someone who is or has been married. However, I must consider whether mandatory reporting should extend to the abuse of vulnerable persons other than children. There may be a case for giving adults with a mental handicap some of the same protection in law as is currently given to children in the Child Care Act, 1991. I am also willing to listen to suggestions for the inclusion of other vulnerable adults within the scope of mandatory reporting laws. However, I realise that in the case of adults, it will be necessary to distinguish between consensual and abusive relationships.
I have already referred to the fear of legal proceedings which can operate as a disincentive to the reporting of suspicions of child abuse. One way of surmounting this fear would be to grant an immunity from legal proceedings to those designated to report cases of abuse. The purpose of granting an immunity would be to encourage reporting by professionals. However, it could be that if professionals were given immunity from prosecution for reporting child abuse, without the introduction of mandatory reporting, this could achieve the same purpose.
On the same point, the Kilkenny report recommended that an immunity be extended beyond designated professionals, to all people who reports suspicions of abuse in good faith. This is another point which I will consider. However, I realise that I must be very careful on this point. The granting of an immunity without limitation could remove any restraint from an incautious reporter.
While at all times promoting and protecting the interests of children, I must also recognise the grave fact that allegations of child abuse, even if subsequently disproved, can have serious consequences for a person's reputation and good name. Even in the case of a report made with the utmost care and caution and in the best of faith, an allegation may prove to be unfounded. I will also have to consider whether a person — against whom allegations of abuse have been passed by a mandated reporter to the authorities — should be informed of this fact. If I am to introduce mandatory reporting then I will have to consider providing some safeguards or an appeals process for persons against whom such allegations have been made.
These are some of the complex and detailed issues which I will have to address in the context of mandatory reporting. I look forward to hearing the views of this House today and will give them careful consideration during the consultative process which I have initiated. Chapter 5, the final chapter of Putting Children First, deals with the consultative process which I have initiated. Written submissions are invited by the end of April. Following these submissions, I will organise conferences for professionals to come together to debate the issues and, hopefully, achieve a consensus on the way forward.
I wish to take this opportunity to address a number of other initiatives to protect children from abuse which are currently being undertaken in the Department of Health and which are intrinsically linked with mandatory reporting. Foremost among these are the revision of the Department's child abuse guidelines and procedure for the notification of suspected cases of abuse between health boards and the Garda and the examination of the issue of child abuse registers.
As regards a revision of the child abuse guidelines issued by my Department in 1987, most Members will be aware that the procedure which I introduced last year for the notification of suspected cases of child abuse between the health boards and the Garda represents a major amendment of the 1987 guidelines in so far as the interaction between the two key players involved in child protection is concerned. It should also be noted that health boards have reviewed their own regional child protection procedures and have taken specific measures to improve arrangements in this area.
As I have previously indicated to the Dáil, a number of difficulties have emerged since the procedure for the notification of suspected cases of abuse between health boards and the Garda was launched. These include the reporting of cases of teenage pregnancies and the position of health board counselling services providing therapeutic support to victims of abuse.
Another important issue which has also been the subject of public interest recently is that of child abuse registers. While I am aware health boards keep lists of children at risk, I am conscious of the need to ensure a uniform approach and of incorporating certain safeguards into the system.
I intend that the revision of all relevant guidelines and the establishment of standardised child abuse registers will be vigorously pursued as soon as the preparatory work for the implementation of the remaining provisions of the Child Care Act has been completed. I would hope by that stage that a clear consensus on the mandatory reporting question will have emerged and that all the issues which need to be addressed will have been identified.
These are some of the important initiatives to protect children from abuse with which I face the coming year. To view Putting Children First in any other light than as part of an integrated approach designed to best meet the needs of children is to fail to place it in its proper perspective. It will not serve as a panacea to the problem of child abuse. Unfortunately, that will prove much more difficult to achieve. All the Departments for which I have responsibility were directly involved in the launch of Putting Children First— as indeed they are all involved in my co-ordinated approach to the promotion and protection of children's rights. Mandatory reporting would have far-reaching implications, for children and for professionals and voluntary workers in the educational, judicial and health sectors and all its possible impacts need to be properly addressed. When I am satisfied I have all the issues clearly resolved to my own satisfaction then — and only then — shall I make a definite decision on the subject. I am glad to open this debate on Putting Children First and I look forward to hearing the points Senators will make.
I have specific questions to put to the Minister and I hope he will respond when he is replying to the debate. Is he aware of a group known as Accused Parents Aids Group Ireland? Was a complaint made to his Department about the alleged failure of all health boards to reports to the Garda a large number of child sexual abuse cases during the period 1987-91? Can he confirm that on foot of a complaint to the Irish Medical Council, its fitness to practice committee is to hold an official inquiry into the conduct of a leading expert in child sexual abuse?
I welcome the opportunity to speak on this important issue which is in the minds and on the tongues of the people of Ireland at this time. Until recently, legislation to govern and protect the welfare of children was almost 100 years old. Reform began with the Child Care Act, 1991, and I welcome its provisions. Not all of them have been implemented but I compliment the Minister on all that has been done in this area. It is necessary to bring forward further legislation for the protection of our young. It is unfortunate that we have to do so. In an advanced, civilised society one would wonder why such legislation has to be in place but this is the position.
Most children grow up in happy families and do not have any problems. They grow easily into adult life and everything falls into place. Unfortunately, the world is a nightmare for other children and they end up in the hands of monsters and beaters. It is because of such situations that new legislation needs to be enacted.
History shows that the abuse of children has always been with us. In Victorian times under a veil of respectability there was child labour and prostitution and child pornography was widespread. Today the same situation exists in some eastern countries where eight and nine year olds are involved in the sex trade and special tours are organised. In some countries nearer home there is widespread child pornography. We live in a perverted world which does not seem to care for those who cannot care for themselves.
Why do people abuse children? Some say abusers were abused themselves. Others say child abuse takes place because of bad living conditions, bad environments, alcohol abuse and so on. I think it would be false to identify child abuse with poverty or unemployment. I would venture to say that abuse in the respectable side of society is even more prevalent.
The State has a duty to protect children but it has failed dismally to do so over the years. Much of the way we have dealt with children through the years should be questioned. Children were placed in care which was either provided or supported by the State. We heard disturbing reports recently of the atrocious conditions in orphanages in which some children were kept.
In addition to the State, the attitude of society over the last 50 years must take some blame. It is well known that shame in every parish in the country allowed, and in some cases determined, that young girls who became pregnant had to leave their area and were pressurised into giving up their babies for adoption. Unseemly and disturbing information has emerged that many young babies were given up for adoption by couples in the United States. It is even more disturbing that their birth certificates were changed and their mothers were forced to sign away any right to see or contact their children again.
Surely this should not have happened in the Catholic Ireland of the 1940s, the 1950s, the 1960s and the 1970s. Where were our priorities and the concerns we should have had for children as well as families? Were we more interested in the veil of respectability about which I spoke earlier? Church and State colluded and the public was indifferent to or ignorant of the facts. One way or another, it is a major blot on Irish society in recent decades.
In the recent Brendan Smyth, Kilkenny incest and Kelly Fitzgerald cases and in many more, the system failed the children involved. Today we seek ways and request legislation to make sure that cases of child sexual abuse and physical abuse are brought to the attention of the authorities as soon as they are suspected or discovered. What is the best way to do this? The fragmented approach to date is not adequate as there is a lack of co-ordination between the Department of Health, health boards and the different agencies. Indeed, individual health boards adopt different approaches. It is time for the Minister to take in hand the situation and the reporting of child sexual and other abuse because we cannot allow this situation to continue. There is not a co-ordinated approach to this serious issue.
In recent days we witnessed the spectacle where the report compiled on behalf of the Western Health Board on the Kelly Fitzgerald case will not be published by the board and cannot be published by the Department of Health. This is unacceptable. When the Kelly Fitzgerald case came to light I said in the House that an independent inquiry was necessary. Instead, the powers that be allowed an internal inquiry by the Western Health Board. The public will never know what went wrong. The only thing it knows for certain is that the girl died at the tender age of 15 years and that there are recommendations to say it will not happen again. Can we be sure of that? I am not convinced and I believe the Minister and the Government must ensure that this area is not left fragmented and uncoordinated. The provision of services in this area must be fully funded, otherwise we will again fail our children.
Mandatory reporting of child abuse is a must and the Minister must take the courageous step to put that into law. To a large extent, European countries have failed to face up to the reality of the necessity of mandatory reporting of child abuse; but that should not deter the Government, which should take the lead in this area. We should follow the lead given by the United State of America, where mandatory reporting of child abuse has been law since the 1960s. Under the Act certain categories of professionals are duty bound by law to report suspected cases of child sexual and physical abuse and maltreatment. We should investigate in depth how this legislation has worked and where it has failed. We should take the best aspects and put them into law.
As a first step, the mandatory reporting of child abuse should become the responsibility of medical, educational and child care professionals, social workers, social services personnel and the Garda Síochána. We need to look at many other areas to see if they too can be included under the umbrella of mandatory reporting. I believe professionals in this area should be the first to be included. Secrecy and fear are part of the dynamic of child abuse. Child protection services must not remain secretive as this contributes to inaction by professionals in protecting our children. Professionals dealing with children must be given the legal framework within which to act.
I thank the Minister for his comprehensive and thought provoking presentation. I would like to express our condolences to the people of Scotland in respect of the terrible tragedy which occurred there yesterday. Unbelievable pain and suffering has been caused to many families because of the loss of so many young innocent lives. It is one of those things which cannot be explained.
I read the document Putting Children First in great detail. It puts the area of mandatory reporting and child abuse into context and it challenges those who read it to question the automatic response we often have to these situations, that is, the automatic solutions to the problems that arise in this complex area, which is not as simple as it seems. We must move beyond our automatic response of saying that everything must be reported, challenged and confronted.
The document rightly highlights the fact that the protection of children from abuse and neglect is a matter of public concern. The State must put in place effective strategies and services to promote and protect the welfare of children as a matter of urgency. On numerous occasions we have called for the full implementation of the 1991 Child Care Act. It is right that we respond to what the Minister has done and congratulate him on the fact that 61 of the 79 sections have now been introduced and that the remaining sections will be brought into force by the end of 1996. This is a comprehensive Act which has frequently been referred to when issues like the Kilkenny incest case and others arose.
Child protection work takes place in a cultural context which is characterised by informality and social relationships. There is a preference for limited bureaucracy and a suspicion of officialdom. The Law Reform Commission concluded in its 1990 report on abuse that a degree of informality or even laxity was apparent in how the law and child abuse procedures were then being interpreted by the professionals.
While much has been done to educate professionals about how to identify children at risk, until recently the public was told virtually nothing about the nature of child sex abuse by the health boards or the Department of Health. The public needs to be educated about the need to report child abuse and to be aware of when it is happening. Like other issues, child sex abuse and abuse in general are emerging from a hidden Ireland and they must be handled in a progressive and professional manner rather than adopting a knee-jerk approach. The public must be informed and it must be in a position to identify the signs of child abuse. It should not treat its suspicions of child abuse as a private family matter. Such a situation justifies calling in outside help.
There is also a need to educate the public about the role of the professionals. Most people have never met a social worker and have had few dealings with the Garda. More than 95 per cent of people have not discussed their role with a social worker or how they can assist in most areas. Most people who come across child abuse are not aware of the role a social worker, the social services and the Garda can play in the area.
The public perception of what such professionals do may contain genuine misconceptions. Those who favour mandatory reporting of child abuse, while genuine in their views, have not fully examined its consequences. Does mandatory reporting mean automatic investigation by the Garda with a view to bringing charges against the parents or guardians of a child?
Most people who have discussed this matter with me would say that mandatory reporting does mean bringing forward a full, detailed and confrontational investigation of the issue and of taking charges and court proceedings against the parents, the guardians or any other perpetrator regardless of the level or amount of abuse. There are severe and mild levels of abuse and they must be examined in their full context. While all abuse must be handled, treated and confronted, we should ask ourselves whether all abuses should be confronted in the courts, and this document challenges us to do so. There are, of course, many cases where it is absolutely necessary to bring the issue to court. However, if a mandatory report is favoured, all abuse must be reported and a Garda investigation will have to take place.
The Minister referred to other countries, particularly Belgium and Germany, which have a high level of control and professionalism when dealing with child abuse. The Netherlands has a voluntary system of reporting child abuse, which is based on what is known as the confidential doctors' bureau, and this should be examined. We should set up a special bureau or group of professionals to handle the situation professionally and fully respond to the needs of abused children. It could see if it was right for them to have full confrontation in court or psychiatric and psychological treatment, or if it could challenge their parents in court for minor abuse. While this document does not give us the answers to these questions, it challenges us to find them.
There should be a multi-disciplined team in each health board dealing with child abuse, comprising of psychologists, psychiatrists, doctors, public health nurses and so on. People who suspect an abuse has taken place will then know there is a body available that will professionally examine the situation in a sensitive way and ensure the best interests of the child are catered for.
There is no system of mandatory reporting in the United Kingdom. The view there is that it might be counterproductive and increase the risks to children overall by weakening the professional sense of personal responsibility, casting the shadow of near automatic reporting over the professionals' work and that it would raise barriers between clients and professionals and between different professionals involved in the case.
The discussion about the United States experience is interesting. However, the United States, which introduced mandatory reporting of child abuse in 1960, is seriously examining the situation. The report says that the main positive effect of mandatory reporting laws is considered to be the huge increase in the number of child abuse cases reported. It also states, however, that the increase in the number of reported cases has not been matched by a commensurate increase in the number of substantiated cases. The number of unsubstantiated cases has risen by 35 per cent in 1976 to 65 per cent in 1982. While there must be some form of reporting, will blanket mandatory reporting ensure that everybody covers themselves legally, if they have any suspicion at all, by reporting it to the Garda and asking for an investigation? If mandatory reporting is favoured, what form of abuse might be subject to that law? The document challenges this difficult question. The immediate response may be that if there is mandatory reporting, surely all types of abuse should be included? The implications of that can be seen in my previous contribution.
It has been suggested that mandatory reporting could damage the trust inherent in many professional relationships, such as doctor/patient and teacher/pupil relationships, and place an unnecessary spotlight of attention on the victim, who discloses abuse rather than the perpetrator. Mandatory reporting could discourage some parents from seeking professional attention for their children if they believe, rightly or wrongly, that the child's condition, no matter what the cause, might lead to a professional automatically reporting any suspicion of abuse to the Garda or the health board.
Mandatory reporting could have serious implications for the confidentiality of many professional services if professionals were obliged to report cases of abuse that came to light in the course of their consultations. A minor sexual abuse took place in a family involving a teenager sitting his leaving certificate and an 11 year old girl. The mother was extremely frightened about the situation and reported it to her doctor, who referred it on to a psychiatrist. Psychiatrists and psychologists intervened and dealt with the child, who was slightly traumatised. However, their view was that the victim fully recovered in a short space of time. The perpetrator was dealt with, counselled and is now in university. It would be the view of the professionals who intervened in that case that there was a full recovery of that family. If a confrontation involving the Garda took place and accusations were made, the victim might not have recovered in the same way. This was a minor situation. If a serious matter occurs, of course charges must be made; but we cannot have blanket reporting that covers all situations.
This is a complex area to which there are no easy answers. This document challenges us. If we need mandatory reporting for all offences, at least we will have examined all the areas the Minister has raised; it will be a healthy exercise. I am also pleased the Minister has set this deadline to the end of April so that it will not be hanging around indefinitely.
While this is a complex area, there are some black and white answers. There are also many aspects which we need to examine carefully. I have listened carefully to Senator Neville and would agree with much of what he said, but I ask him to consider one of his points. His argument is not against mandatory disclosure but the way in which the case was dealt with after it was brought to people's attention. This is a classic example and brings me to the core of this issue. That teenager could still be abusing younger children if he had not been dealt with or if the information had not been disclosed to a psychiatrist or psychologist. That is the case in favour of mandatory reporting and it raises a crucial question: to whom should the report be made? What should the person who receives that report do with it? Mandatory reporting does not automatically require that a report be made to the Garda in the first instance.
Before proceeding with the general thrust of my contribution I wish to address references to health boards. The discussion about health boards is extraordinary and has been dragged into discussions relating to regional education boards. I compliment the Minister of State on what has been done in this area but I will now inform him of what should not be done. The largest single problem relating to child abuse in this country is that every health board is dancing to a different tune. There is no single way to deal with the problem. I am completely opposed to granting certain powers to the health boards until a national co-ordinating committee is established to decide how to deal with such cases. Each regional board should deal with the problem in exactly the same way.
I spent the past hour dealing with an allegation of child sexual abuse in a case where I believe someone is being badly victimised. The first question I ask in such cases is which health board area was involved. I can tell, within 20 seconds, how much of a mess will be made of the case by discovering this information. People in the health boards are making up rules as they go. Victims are dealt with differently by each health board, perhaps with great commitment by those involved, but there is no consistent approach. This is a highly complex area.
We are also discussing the reporting of disclosures, not suspicions, which is taking away from the debate on this issue. What should people do when they become aware, not suspicious, of child abuse? I wish to state unambiguously that teachers in the primary and secondary sectors of education need the protection of mandatory reporting. We need it to protect ourselves for the reasons referred to by the Minister of State. Children need the security of having their needs dealt with by one Department. The Minister of State has different views on these issues but they must be drawn together. The Government drew them together into one portfolio, that of the Minister of State. For these reasons, one Department should have responsibility for dealing with these issues. The fact that the Minister of State is attached to three Departments is no argument for keeping them apart, it is an argument for drawing them together. However, this is peripheral to the main content of my contribution.
Teachers are one group of professionals who are currently unprotected by law in dealing with child abuse allegations. Such allegations are brought to the attention of teachers through a variety of methods. The abused child, their family, neighbours, etc., might bring the facts to the attention of a teacher. Disclosures can happen in many ways. A child might state that they are being abused by their uncle when in fact their father is involved, or by their teacher when a neighbour is actually the culprit. We are aware of the things which can go wrong. Nonetheless there are allegations of abuse but what action should teachers take? They are informed in confidence that abuse is taking place but the person making the disclosure does not want any action to be taken or seek professional advice elsewhere.
I have a very clear view on this matter which I would like it to be enforced through legislation. When someone brings a problem to the attention of a professional in confidence — for example, a teacher — they expect that person to do something about it. This is similar to politics. When one is given confidential information by a political colleague, they are saying "I am giving you this and I hope you do the right thing with it. I am telling you in confidence and I will not be tied to it.". This can create major problems for teachers who have a professional responsibility to see that such allegations are dealt with or to deal with them themselves in some way. However, teachers are now at risk. When these allegations are brought to the relevant authorities, the person against whom they are made immediately issues writs for libel and becomes litigious in his or her own defence. The first and well determined response of abusers when confronted with allegations is complete denial. The denial stage in child sexual abuse goes on and on and everyone is at risk during that period.
Teachers are faced with the traumatic fact that they might wreck a family by reporting the allegations; a family might be broken up forever and the children taken from their parents. Teachers face many decisions relating to whether they are doing the right thing. They can now be found guilty by omission or commission and, therefore, require the protection of law. There is a huge burden for a teacher in knowing that the outcome of an abuse case can cause many problems for a family. The introduction of mandatory reporting would protect teachers by making it their professional responsibility to report any allegations of abuse and then the issues of negligence, determining the best course of action or legal actions against a teacher would not arise. It becomes a professional responsibility required by law and, therefore, carries with it the protection of law.
Mandatory reporting means that teachers are required to pass on information to the appropriate authority. I am not in the business of defining that authority and that is where the difficulty lies. As a first step, I urge the Minister of State to introduce mandatory reporting. The second step would involve the implementation of that decision. The Minister of State made the point that this area is very complicated, detailed and needs careful handling. Initially, however, we must ensure that the principle is correct. Mandatory reporting must be introduced and then we can decide how to implement it. Confusion is being created by having concurrent discussions on both matters. People are discussing mandatory reporting and arguing about dealing with those reports. The two must be differentiated if the matter is to proceed.
Mandatory reporting means that a teacher passes on information. Consequently, whether the allegation is proven on foot of an investigation, that teacher would be seen to have discharged their professional responsibility. They could not be accused of blocking, initiating or interfering with the process in any way. The introduction of mandatory reporting should be accompanied by the establishment of a special section attached to the Department of Education or some other Department. This section should respond within 24 hours to any allegations disclosed to a teacher. This kind of response is required.
Senator Neville made that point that a mixture of professionals are needed, that is people with a background in social work, education, psychiatry, medicine and psychology. There must be a team who can respond quickly, within 24 to 48 hours. The biggest problem with child abuse allegations is the delay in dealing with them. The Garda are not the appropriate investigating authority in the first instance. There must be a process of establishing a prima facie position before allegations are investigated by the Garda or the local public health representative. An intermediary official must be put in place who can move to the core of the allegations before initiating a full investigation. The structures and procedures attaching to the reporting of allegations must be placed on a statutory footing. This is the only way to protect pupils at school and children in the home. A course of action must be put in place for professionals — teachers, doctors, etc. — to follow.
The present situation which involves three Departments is unwieldy. I ask the Minister of State to continue working on the area of validation or substantiation. It is interesting to note the casual use of the word "substantiation". The Minister of State is aware that only the tip of the iceberg is seen during an investigation before it reaches the point of validation or substantiation. I am seriously concerned about outmoded systems of validation which can no longer have our confidence. It is a highly complex area and I would know more about these cases than most other people in this House because they cross my desk in different forms and from a variety of perspectives. The more I learn about it, the more I am aware of what I do not know about it.
I am clear about mandatory reporting, but I am not at all confident about offering the Minister advice on the validation process. People see the process on television where anatomically correct dolls are used and the child is asked various questions. However, the validation criteria used widely by psychologists in Ireland are based on a process from the 1960s. I am not saying they are wrong. The fact that they were drawn up in the 1960s and 1970s does not mean they are not equally valid today. However, it puzzles me that they are not upgraded. For instance, the language and jargon used by children of 12 years of age today is far ahead of that used by a 12 year old 30 years ago. The question of validation has much to do with language and an understanding of bodily functions, sexuality and sex. Children are different now.
I have never felt comfortable using the term "minor abuse" or trying to categorise levels of abuse. I had great sympathy with what Senator Neville said because I encounter this on a regular basis. The climate in this country at present is such that one cannot have that debate. There is no doubt there are different levels of abuse, ranging from inappropriate behaviour to interference to sexual activity to sexual penetration. There should be an understanding of where they stand on a scale. We should recognise that they are all wrong but ask if they all need quite the same response.
These issues arise and this is the complexity we will encounter. I would say clearly that it becomes complex at a point beyond mandatory reporting rather than before mandatory reporting. I urge the Minister to grasp the nettle on mandatory reporting and then impose the conditions on its implementation. It is the next step.
I have not been a supporter of Childline since the day it was established. I was not in favour of it for the reason the Minister outlined in his speech. It leads to an explosion of disclosures with no method of dealing with them. That is what is wrong. We need structures to deal with the evidence and conduct the investigation. That is the way forward and that is what we must examine. We must look at where we stand as a society.
There is no point in the Minister's Department or any other Department accumulating a list of allegations with which we cannot deal in a way in which we can have confidence. The Minister, parents and the professionals involved, be they teachers, psychologists or medical people, must have confidence in the system. I ask the Minister to grasp the nettle on mandatory reporting and introduce it. If we take a decision to introduce it, we must be clear and say it now means that certain issues must be reported and that when they are reported, they will be investigated in a particular way.
It is a national report on the investigation of child sexual abuse. Let us be sure that teachers are protected, that children are protected, that parents have confidence, that health boards know where they are going, that there is a national co-ordinating committee and that we will deal with these issues and eliminate the problem.
I welcome the Minister and congratulate him on having the courage to address this problem. I welcome the fact that this is a discussion document. It is important because we must involve everyone, professionals and the public alike, in discussing this serious problem.
For too long the plight of children has received negligible public attention. That state of affairs has changed recently, which is welcome, but it is unfortunate that this results from a series of incidents that emerged in the last few months. I have no doubt many more will come to the fore in the coming months and we will have to deal with them. We cannot undo what is done but, as legislators, it is incumbent on us to learn from past mistakes. Part and parcel of this is the obligation to discuss fully the issues involved and that is why I welcome the publication of this document, Putting Children First.
I support the introduction of mandatory reporting and I do so out of my own experience. Prior to entering this House I worked as a psychiatric nurse. Were it appropriate to do so, I could list numerous examples where, if there was mandatory reporting, action could have been taken against people I knew to be child abusers. People have got off scot free in this country having carried out some of the most heinous crimes against children and adults because of the system and fear on the part of people who have been told. It is not a simple matter and I welcome this document.
The Minister referred to experiences in the United States. In their system, mandatory reporting has led to a huge increase in accusations of child abuse. However, the number of cases brought to a successful conclusion has not increased. The impression should not go out from this debate that systems are not already in place for reporting child abuse. Awareness of the problem is clearly growing and the publication of the report of the Irish Catholic Bishops' advisory committee on child sexual abuse by priests and religious clearly indicates this.
As the report documents, the 1987 child abuse guidelines empower persons to report to the health board any case in which they know or suspect that a child is being harmed. The 1995 amendment to this regulation requires the health board to report any such suspicions to the Garda. Health board employees are already obliged to report any suspected form of abuse. What is at issue here is reporting by professionals and others not already covered by this framework. Even here there are guidelines. Doctors must operate under the Medical Council's ethical guidelines. The priest in the confessional is in a similar situation when horrible cases are told to him and he is not in a position to report them.
What the document under discussion is concerned with is whether an individual — and there is much debate at present as to who exactly should be party to the obligation — should be legally obliged to report to the Garda any reasonable assumption that abuse has taken place. Both the Law Reform Commission and the Kilkenny incest investigation team have recently endorsed mandatory reporting, although, as the Minister said, they differ in their approach. The LRC report referred specifically to child sexual abuse whereas the Kilkenny report advocated the reporting of more general abuse.
The trend towards mandatory reporting was further endorsed in the result of the Western Health Board investigation of the tragic case of Kelly Fitzgerald, which has been mentioned on numerous occasions today. The circumstances of this case confirm that if and when mandatory reporting is introduced, it should apply to all forms of child abuse. For instance, after the introduction of mandatory reporting in the United States, 40 per cent of cases continued to revolve around the issue of neglect of children.
I am pleased that the report before us addressed the impact of mandatory reporting in the United States. Criticisms include the fact that while the incidence of reporting has increased, so too has the number of unsubstantiated cases. The system is consequently swamped by reports and this has led to a downgrading in the level of care given to children and their families.
When I worked in the hospital, a patient accused another nurse of making sexual advances towards her. I can tell the House how that person felt; he was a married man with children. An investigation was initiated immediately and within three days the patient had apologised and the matter had been cleared up. However, to this day that person still lives more or less in a form of a nightmare because the nudge and wink system is still there and people are asking whether he did it even though he was cleared.
There is no smoke without fire.
The introduction of mandatory reporting in the US dates back to the 1960s and 1970s. We in Ireland have seen the other side of the coin. Only recently the lid has come off the years of neglect and abuse of our children both in domestic circumstances and in institutions. Mandatory reporting may give rise to its own problems but surely anything is better than the recent stream of revelations we have seen here.
The key issue for decision is whether people operating in the child care field, be they doctors, psychologists or others, will have their task of child care made easier by mandatory reporting. In an article in The Irish Times, Mr. Robbie Gilligan, a senior lecturer in social work in Trinity College, argues that mandatory reporting may not be necessary. His thesis is that what professionals really require is clarification of the existing situation with regard to legal immunity and other matters. In effect, they do not have sufficient confidence that the system will respond appropriately.
Another fear of some working in the field which must be taken into account is that the guidelines will be used against them. In 1991 I organised a seminar in Letterkenny on sexual abuse. All the professionals were invited — nurses, teachers, the gardaí, social workers, etc. One amazing fact which emerged was that there was no co-ordinated approach to dealing with the problem when it was reported. The three different spheres of nursing — psychiatric, general and mental handicap — did not know where to go if an accusation was made. The health boards did not seem to have a proper plan to deal with it. The gardaí also lacked training in the area; they said they were unable to handle the problem. As Senator O'Toole said, the matter should be taken away from the Garda.
This is a worrying development, possibly unavoidable, and I was interested to hear the Minister's comments on it. The lack of confidence in the system is one of the most cogent reasons for the introduction of mandatory reporting. If there is confusion as to the responsibility of different people, let us end it. In some circumstances this may lead to a reluctance to report cases, but overall the net result will be positive. This is not to say I do not care about the difficulties that mandatory reporting involves; I do. However, as Mr. Gilligan pointed out in his article, there is a tendency to believe that mandatory reporting in itself is a panacea for all our ills. Some politicians have accused the Minister of delaying action on this issue by publishing and discussing this report. That is to be condemned because there are serious problems in all health boards and we cannot ignore them. The accusation is arrant nonsense and if the discussion document does anything I hope it will dispel this kind of talk.
In conclusion, I thank and congratulate the Minister for publishing the report and bringing it to this House. In light of the three recent reports advocating movement towards mandatory reporting, I think that on balance, it is time to go down that road.
I welcome the opportunity to discuss Putting Children First. I am glad the Minister is here to account for the actions or, more accurately, the inaction of his Department. No Minister in the history of the State has deferred so many decisions while awaiting a report, a task force, a study and a myriad of other stratagems, all apparently designed to avoid making decisions or taking action. The Minister and the Government must be made realise that the attitude, “if we do nothing, we will not make a mistake”, will not work on this occassion.
The Minister said earlier that his first main objective was:
to promote and protect the welfare of children — it is their interests which are my paramount concern.
I will deal with that objective in my contribution. His third objective led to my hard-hitting criticism, which seemed to evoke a response from the Government benches.
It is not my normal stance in this Chamber to attack a Minister, particularly a constituency colleague, but I feel strongly about these issues, as he can confirm. His third objective is:
to reach a consensus on how the best interests of the child can be protected in the arrangements we make for the reporting of child abuse.
A consensus cannot be reached on the best interests of the child; it requires hard decisions and actions to follow them up. The Minister has made a mistake in this objective.
The sub-title of Putting Children First is “A Discussion Document on Mandatory Reporting”. The norm of this Government appears to be the suppression of reports. It is bad enough that we must endure its obsession with preferring reports to action; it is beyond belief that we are then subjected to these same reports being suppressed by those who call for them. The Kelly Fitzgerald report, referred to by my colleague, Senator Finneran, is the most recent example of this. The reports on Madonna House and Trudder House are also hidden away from public view and suppressed. The Minister can save his breath if he is going to tell me he did not directly commission the report. This arm's length, one step removed nonsense will not wash with me or with those outside this House who are bewildered by our failure to act decisively on this issue. He may say it was a health board inquiry, but I know the report was initiated because of the pressure the Minister put on the health board.
Another excuse being made is that the chief executive officer of the health board has received legal advice as to why the report should not be made public. However, I understand the members of the inquiry group also received legal advice in order to cover themselves totally, so that when they made and presented the report it could be made public. If one pays a lawyer to get legal advice one will probably get the advice one seeks and the Western Health Board official has received advice which suits.
I understand the report has avoided naming names but has come to definite conclusions. Given the current public dismay about the events in Goldenbridge and the calls for inquiries into events there from the 1940s to the 1960s, it is both hypocritical and a total waste of time to condemn and regret those abuses when more recent events have led to the death of a young girl and this Government has decided that a report on them cannot be published. The Minister for Health has the report and could direct that it be made public.
In the Dáil yesterday, the Minister spoke about the possible establishment of an inspectorate of social services. This requires an explanation. We waited patiently for the Minister to make up his mind on this matter and none of us could have foreseen the almost bizarre solution he devised. I had hoped for a pro-active inspectorate which would be capable of reporting publicly on social services for the children. This is needed immediately if for no other reason than to re-assure the public that the quality of care given is excellent. To the astonishment of all — including The Irish Times, which undoubtedly is smarter than me — the Minister said we do not need this, as he meets weekly with the staff of the Department of Health. This arrangement is simply inadequate and if that is the Minister's response, he must carry the can from now on for any problems which may be discovered as a result of his decision not to appoint an inspectorate of social services.
That is factually incorrect.
If that is the case the Minister can correct me. To return to the current unrest about standards in our orphanages in the 1940s, 1950s and 1960s, as we are talking about putting our children first, I will examine the supports the State gives to children in the 1990s.
I wish to refer to the supports the State gives to children in foster care and to those who foster children. In a country such as ours which places so much emphasis on caring for our children, we would expect that people who volunteer to do more than their share would be appreciated and supported to an exceptional degree. Nothing could be further from the truth. Foster parents are at the front line of child care. They are often called on at short notice and in difficult circumstances to bring love into a life which may not recognise the concept. In all but the most unusual cases foster care is preferable to residential homes and about 70 per cent of children in care are fostered at present. I hope this figure will increase but I have doubts that it will.
The support given to foster parents is very inadequate. The Minister of State should consider the case of a child placed with a family on a Friday — this often happens at an hour's notice. There is no emergency support for the foster family in such a case; if the child needs clothes or toys they must be bought; if the child is a baby and needs nappies, food or formula they must also be bought. In the main the foster families are not wealthy and such expenses can be a real problem. Most of the expenses are reimbursed a month later except, of course, if the family is extravagant and buys disposable nappies. The one thing a mother does not need when a new child arrives is to have to wash good quality cloth nappies. Come the Saturday when the family tries to integrate the child into the loving home environment, there is no support. There is no social worker or other support available at weekends.
I am not looking for a grandiose scheme involving funding and certainly not another report or task force. I want the Minister of State to recognise what these families are giving. Foster families are becoming more and more difficult to recruit mainly because of the poor support given to them. Foster families do not provide homes and care for the children of others on the basis of the remuneration they will receive.
Quality child care costs money. People's love should not be abused and I ask the Minister to take the following steps without delay. Allowances for foster care families should be reviewed and brought up to an adequate level. A support service in the form of an on-call social worker at night and weekends should be provided. A starter food and nappy pack should be provided where babies are involved, a toy allowance for young children——
This sounds like an election speech.
I am not a candidate in the by-election.
Of course, the Senator tried and failed.
This is what foster families tell me they need.
Is it the Senator dealing with the discussion document?
Putting Children First is the document and I intend to deal with that concept.
I am delighted someone is going to deal with Putting Children First. The debate has all been about mandatory reporting so far.
Was the Senator here for the first hour?
I was watching the monitor and listening to the debate.
As I was saying, there should be a toy allowance for young children which converts to a recreation allowance for older children. There should be a faster method for reimbursing foster families for expenses they incur. There should be top-up allowances to be paid automatically for children with special needs. The Minister of State should give consideration to an allowance for the foster family over and above the cost of maintaining a child. When these measures are in place the Minister should launch a properly funded, high profile campaign to recruit new foster parents. This is an opportunity for the Minister to do something practical which will have a lasting and positive effect on child care.
I am concerned that the only reference in the Minister of State's speech to young single parents is in terms of the criminality involved in their becoming young mothers. In the context of this document I thought he would have taken the opportunity to outline what can be done to help lone parents. Some of the groups who deal with lone parents tell me that young mothers break down under the pressure of having to cope with their children alone. I am also told that poverty is a great problem for lone parents.
The children of lone parents need support and I would have hoped that, when referring to the legal position in terms of mandatory reporting, the Minister of State would have referred to what can be done to put these children first. If there is a problem with age and mandatory reporting of girls under 17 years who have children, the law needs to be addressed. This is again an Irish solution to an Irish problem — if it is illegal now we are ignoring it.
There are worrying reports from the mental handicap sector that the level of funding has diminished. I appeal to the Minister to provide a major increase in the funds for new places for the mentally handicapped.
I have stayed out of the adoption issue over the past few weeks because of my own involvement. However, I raise the issue because of the Minister of State's outrageous refusal to accept the Fianna Fáil Private Member's Bill dealing with foreign adoptions and a contact register in the Dáil yesterday. I met with representatives of Barnardo's and a lone parents' support group. I am informed it does not require changes in the law to set up immediately an active contact register. I do not want to hear a word from the Minister of State and the Department about the Goldenbridge orphanage and the recent find of files relating to adoptions unless they bring in regulations to set up an active contact register. Many people have been seeking for this for a long time. I have been told it does not require a change in the law but a change in the regulations. Access to birth certificates is another right. If this is not accorded by the Department the freedom of information legislation will allow adult adoptees access to such information.
I was at a meeting of the National Economic and Social Forum dealing with the issue of unemployment among early school leavers. A task force has been set up. The Minister of State should take steps to ensure these children get back into education. They will have no future without access to education.
The Rape Crisis Centre, Barnardo's and other voluntary bodies have been inundated with calls for help. However, they have received no additional funding for the past two years, yet they carry the burden while the Government procrastinates. Dithering and procrastination will lead us to face other crises. As we speak children may be suffering because of our inaction. The dalay is unacceptable and unthinkable.
I am pleased the Minister of State has introduced Putting Children First to the House so that we can discuss it. I am equally pleased that he has put a time limit on how long it may be discussed. We should not pretend that we have not known for decades that physical abuse, sexual abuse and neglect of children was taking place in this country. This issue has been brought before the House in the past. One of the most important debates I looked up was that on corporal punishment in Irish primary schools, introduced by Senator Owen Sheehy Skeffington in 1956. This was at a time when the INTO was calling for investigations into the possible abuse of the use of corporal punishment within the primary school system. It was only supposed to be used for grave transgressions and in no circumstances for mere failure at lessons.
The debate is interesting because it shows how Members reacted to public demonstrations of serious corporal abuse within the primary schools at that time. It also shows how much progress we have made. Nevertheless, we should not be too sanguine about the possibility of action on our words today. It took approximately 25 years for these debates of the 1950s to be followed up.
At that time a campaign was started by Constance O'Connell to deal with excessive corporal punishment within the schools but it was so ill supported that a booklet by the campaign entitled Punishment in our Schools apparently had to be sold clandestinely even though it contained many letters which were published in the Evening Mail. It is, therefore, impossible for us to say that, even 50 years ago, we did not know that excessive punishment was taking place in our public schools.
We also knew that it was taking place in many other places. The kind of remarks made during a Seanad debate then would make one realise that no matter how seriously we discuss the situation today, unless we take immediate action we could have a situation similar to that which happened in 1955. At that time Senators were told of a letter received from a father where he described how his daughter, aged 13, attended a mixed national school when one day, being unable to do a certain sum, she copied it from another pupil. When the teacher discovered this he gave her a spanking. Note that a 13 year old girl was spanked by a male teacher. The letter goes on to describe how, on another occasion and for a similar reason, he put her across the desk and gave her six strokes of the cane.
I could continue to refer to similar letters. At one stage, the Minister of the day responded that these people were cranks. This is what happened in this House in the middle 1950s. Considerable progress has been made since then. However, it was not until the middle 1970s that people such as Dr. Cyril Daly, Dr. Paddy Randles and Dr. Mary Randles had taken up cases to get action. I would not like to think that in the middle 1990s we talked about mandatory reporting while at the same time there would be delays in doing something about it.
The case I have outlined is a good example of how public serious physical abuse was. It is important to remember that the only steps parents could take in those days was to take an action against the teacher for injury to the child. In one case, £25, a considerable sum in the 1950s, was awarded against a teacher for pulling the ear off a child. Serious instances of public physical abuse must have been accepted in this country at the time.
I remember reading of a man called Hurley in Macroom who sold his farm and moved to England rather than have his children continue in a school where a teacher could not be persuaded to refrain from physically abusing pupils. Another sad factor is that often managers of the schools did not want to know when anything happened. We knew what was going on and we did not appear to find it unacceptable. In addition, there was an extraordinary time delay between raising a matter in this House and having it dealt with.
Institutional care has received a very bad press recently. It is understandable because of incredible abuses which occurred within some institutions. I remember reading the book entitled Children of the Poor Clares by Mavis Arnold and Heather O'Brien. It studied the fire in Country Cavan in the 1940s where approximately 30 or 40 children were burned to death. They had been locked into their dormitories and were unable to escape from the flames. This was public at the time and was reported in all of the newspapers.
We have had the Kennedy report on institutions, published in the 1970s, and the task force on child care. Indeed, we have had report after report and one would now hope to see some action. When the Kelly Fitzgerald case was discussed in the House I said I did not see the point in having a public report because I did not know if we would do anything about it. While it is most unfortunate that we cannot get the facts of this case, they would simply mount up along with the facts in the other reports and we would do very little about it.
We have neglected to put children first in our dealings with them when we have known, and not only suspected, that they were being abused. I was involved in setting up the sexual assault unit in the Rotunda Hospital approximately 15 years ago. One of the most startling events occurred when the unit was suddenly flooded with teachers with children. We had not expected this, but the teachers had nowhere to bring children. Contrary to what happened in the 1950s, the obvious help to children today is their teachers.
In his contribution to the Seanad debate I referred to earlier, Senator Sheehy Skeffington described how at one stage children described teachers only as quiet or cross, rather like bulls. Today, for the vast majority of children, the one person they feel they can turn to is their teacher. In this respect I was delighted to hear Senator O'Toole's positive response to the debate.
An enormous number of people were incarcerated in institutions in the past. We have more people in prison now than in the early 1970s, but when one remembers the number of people, a very large number of whom were children, in reformatories, industrial schools, magdalen laundries, orphanages, psychiatric institutions — some people in psychiatric institutions were very young — we must have had the highest number of people ever incarcerated. We knew about it and agreed with it.
The situation regarding institutions is being and has been tackled. However, the situation regarding families is very serious. As a nation, we are very unenthusiastic about prying into each other's private lives. While this is to be recommended, because nobody wants to see the return of the valley of the squinting windows, it means that we are prepared to overlook within our neighbourhood a considerable amount of neglect and physical and sexual abuse of children. There are many people who seem to think this is appropriate.
Last year I spoke at a meeting in Killiney, which could not be considered to be the hinterland of Ireland, on the rights of the child. We are signatories to and have ratified the UN declaration on the rights of the child, which covers all these areas. A man at the meeting told me that a man in his own house should be able to do what he likes and that there should be no interference from social workers. The fact that somebody feels able to say this publicly is alarming. When one remembers the cases reported in the public press on an almost daily basis of what happened regarding criminal cases taken against people, especially for the sexual abuse of their children, there is an alarming degree of acceptance that parents are in a position to do what they like with their children.
A case was reported in a newspaper last week under the heading "Man thumped teenage daughter". This man apparently likes his children to stay up until he comes home from the pub. The pubs close at 11 o'clock, which is a late hour for children to stay up. When he arrived home drunk at 10.30 one evening his daughter was in bed. He went to her bedroom and hit her three times with his fist. I think she escaped through the window. I gather that this was not the first time that such abuse had taken place within that family and the man was charged with physically abusing the girl. Interestingly, the sentence was that he should have treatment for alcohol abuse or go to prison for three years. If we expect the children of Ireland to sit up until their fathers come home from the pub, we are in a very serious situation.
Physical and sexual abuse and neglect takes place within families. The Kilkenny incest investigation, with all its gory details, was brought before this House; but I can remember a similar case from Kilkenny, which may not have been brought before this House, regarding incest in the 1960s. I remember it being reported in the public press. This girl was sexually abused by her father.
At the age of 14 she had a child which was sent for adoption by the girl's mother, who said that she had been involved with some man. The girl then began to get very resistant to her father's advances, which usually took place on a Sunday morning and were well known of by the mother of the family and three adult siblings. One Sunday morning she refused to go out to the byre where her father usually abused her. The father demanded that she come out, she appeared to have been sent out by the rest of the family and she was murdered. That case was reported in the paper 30 years before the case we are talking about now. There is no point in saying that we did not know these things were going on, because we knew perfectly well and did not do anything about it.
I am worried about delay. The Minister has already quite rightly begun to bring in mandatory reporting. He has pointed out that there have been problems in the way it was brought in. It was perhaps a mistake to bring in mandatory reporting at the top level. Some preparatory work should be done at a lower level before the contact between the health boards and the Garda is established.
This is an extraordinarily difficult area to deal with because it approaches the area where a criminal investigation is about to take place. In one case the first a family knew that a report had been made to the Garda was when a garda came to the house. In another case there were serious problems because proper liasion could not be established between the social worker involved in the case and the Garda. The Minister must ensure that an individual garda is appointed to each specific case. If we do not have careful correlation between individual care workers and gardaí we could run into terrible trouble as these are very difficult cases.
Careworkers and social workers in these situations are under enormous stress, because they are the people who have to ask the difficult questions. More support and training and indeed more staff are absolutely essential. The Minister has grave problems in this area. The turnover of staff is unfortunately very high. One woman told me that 15 social workers have been involved in her case. That is probably an exaggeration but she was certainly able to name 11 of them for me. This is undesirable, but I understand the very serious pressures that social workers are under and the great stress they have to deal with. Mandatory reporting, as the Minister has been bringing it in, is needed.
The most important thing is to decide what we are to report. The enormous number of cases of neglect need to be reported. We often talk about the cases we see on the streets of Dublin, but we never do anything about them, so we could start there. It is important to have mandatory reporting of physical and sexual abuse as well. These are given the highest profile in the press but they may constitute the smallest number of cases.
Who will do the reporting? Immunity is very important for people who report these cases. The medical profession and healthcare workers will have to report cases; but we are in a bad position, because the child is in general brought to these people by the parents. It is important that we try, as the Kilkenny incest report recommended, to establish contact between the various institutions. We need computer links between various casualty departments and between doctors so that suspicious cases — where, for example, a name keeps coming up in the casualty departments of different hospitals on different nights — will be noticed and we can see a pattern.
Teachers are most important in these cases because, as Senator O'Toole said, when a child confides in a teacher the child expects something to happen. Immunity from prosecution is very important here as well. The Medical Council says in its ethical guidelines regarding doctor-patient confidentiality that one has to remember that serious damage to a third party has to be taken into account and that confidentiality may have to be broken in those cases. The question of immunity is important because at the moment a doctor is before the Medical Council charged with bringing false accusations of sexual abuse. Unless the accusations are made maliciously, people will have to be given immunity.
I am very glad to see this report here today. I urge the Minister to ensure that we do not drag our feet on this issue as we did on the issue of corporal punishment which came before the Seanad in 1955 and was eventually rectified in the 1970s. This must be brought forward with urgency. Our sins of omission in the past regarding reporting are so great that it is quite impossible for us to provide for anything except mandatory reporting. The important thing is that we put children first.
I welcome the Minister to the House to discuss this very important subject. The prevalence of child abuse in modern Ireland is a matter of shock, distress and profound regret to the entire population. When the topic comes up in conversation people express regret and horror. We have always put our children first. That we should have to debate the matter in the Seanad does not signal that there has been some change in our value system in Ireland. Rather it means that the primacy and protection of children, which we have always taken for granted, needs to be dealt with explicitly in legislation.
In this, as in other areas of social policy, the simple approach can be too simplistic. I do not want to underestimate some of the problems which must be addressed in relation to mandatory reporting of child abuse but we can in addressing these problems sometimes be too sharp. I am firmly and unashamedly in favour of mandatory reporting of child abuse. I want all the checks and balances in place to ensure that this does not of itself generate injustices, but the bottom line is that the most vulnerable in our society have to be given the greatest protection. I will support steps which guarantee that. Nothing less will suffice.
We have been too casual in ensuring that children are protected from exploitation, leaving aside the issue of abuse. I am always a bit shocked when I see youngsters begging, mostly at the behest of a participating parent. Undoubtedly, the parent concerned gets a better take per hour by virtue of having a youngster in tow, but we should not allow this to happen. The increase in street begging itself needs to be addressed, leaving aside the matter of the children involved in it. The exploitation of children in the context of begging needs to be discussed in this debate.
In relation to the sexual abuse of children, the Kilkenny inquiry and the Kelly Fitzgerald report have highlighted deficiencies in our present monitoring and reporting systems. Social services and the Garda carry the major responsibilities in dealing with these problems and the legislative framework already in place is clearly not sufficient to deal with them. We do not value sufficiently the work done by the Garda and by social workers in addressing these problems at the coalface. They carry the burden of responsibility in an area that most of us would prefer to leave to others yet which is of fundamental and overriding importance.
The Legislature must put a legislative system in place to ensure that we accept our responsibilities in this area so that there can never be another Kelly Fitzgerald case. The founders of the Republic set out the aspiration in the Declaration of Independence that we should cherish all our children. It was not and is not just a fine aspiration but an essential part of any civilised society. I urge Members to regard the protection of our children as of primary importance. We should take every responsible step to ensure that Irish children are protected from harm, abuse and exploitation.
I welcome the debate and the discussion document on mandatory reporting published by the Minister. The title, Putting Children First, is appropriate because this must be our primary consideration; we must ensure that whatever is done is in the best interests of children. If that is to the forefront of our minds during the discussion, the Minister should ultimately be in a position to make the best decision possible.
The Minister was right to publish a discussion document rather than make a decision too quickly on this issue as it is important to get the views of those working directly at the coal face. As Senator Wall said, the job of a health board social worker is extremely difficult in terms of dealing with the suspicion of child abuse. They need all the support they can get from the health boards, the Garda, the Department of Health and others. Trying to intervene, make decisions and do what is best for children in relation to this matter must be a most difficult job.
I am a member of the Mid-Western Health Board which held a discussion with health board social workers recently and it was brought home to us the extreme difficulties facing people in making the type of decisions they must make. Nobody wants to wrongly accuse somebody and nobody wants to take the chance that they might let a case of child abuse slip through the net. Support, training and associated matters are crucial in this area.
In this debate, I will listen closest to those who work directly in the field. In particular, I will listen to Senator O'Toole because he is listening to the views of teachers at the coal face. In some ways teachers are crucial to this issue because, more than other professionals, they have daily contact with children. Doctors, health board workers and others meet children at irregular intervals, but teachers meet them every day. Therefore, teachers in particular must be trained and protected in this area. If teachers feel mandatory reporting is in the best interests of the child, that view should be heard.
I am inclined to favour mandatory reporting, but it must be clearly defined. I am more inclined to favour the suggestion of the Law Reform Commission than the proposal in the report on the Kilkenny incest case. The commission recommends that a person should know about a situation or have good reason for their suspicion before they are obliged to make a report. It must be as close to certainty as possible because there is a real problem in terms of imposing legal obligations on the basis of suspicions.
A person may not have had an opportunity to examine a situation in order to feel certain about it or have good reason to report it. I prefer the wording suggested by the Law Reform Commission, but whatever decision is made it should be as clear and unambiguous as possible. It is difficult to be clear and unambiguous in this area but every effort must be made in that regard. Senator O'Toole was right to separate the issue of mandatory reporting from what happens after a case has been reported. Much work is needed in this area.
Having said the Minister was correct to take his time, my priority is the implementation of all the measures in the Child Care Act which would put clear and correct procedures in place for people working in the area. This will ensure that, if reporting becomes mandatory, they know exactly what they must do and who is responsible for what. I take the point that the same procedures should apply in all health board areas. It is not acceptable that some health boards deal with these matters more rigorously than others. I am not sure whether that is actually the position because I know the Mid-Western Health Board deals with cases very effectively. However, the same procedures should apply in all health boards and the Department of Health has an obligation in that regard.
Other important questions are raised in the document regarding exactly what should be mandatorily reported. It should not cross every area; for example, there is the question of retrospection and we must be cautious in that regard. It will cause many problems if cases that happened many years ago, but which have only come to light, must be mandatorily reported. There are a huge number of such cases and there may not be any reason to believe they are relevant to the person's current life. In addition, as the document states, it could discourage people from coming forward. For example, men who have been involved in domestic violence are now forming voluntary support groups where they try to understand their actions and bring forward remedies. The category of what should be mandatorily reported should not be too broad. If the point that children should be put first is at the centre of the agenda, it will be possible to delineate which cases should be mandatorily reported.
It is important to be realistic about the amount of time and resources which can be made available. They should be maximised in order to deal with cases of current child abuse where a huge amount of trauma is involved and a lot of time and effort are required on the part of social workers and doctors to treat it. A retributive attitude should not be taken where punishment is the most important aspect. Caring for the child is most important and this must be at the centre of the agenda.
The document mentions case conferences in terms of the current position where cases being dealt with are reported to the Garda and the health boards. This type of cross involvement is important in terms of a specific garda and a specific health board worker. If the case is reported by a school, a specific formula is necessary so that teachers know exactly into what they link and the various professionals can interact in order to achieve the best result for the needs of the child. A lot of discussion is necessary and we should not rush into anything.
Overall, my view is that, ultimately, mandatory reporting is required. However, it must be clearly defined and should not be all embracing, otherwise, it would miss the point of putting the needs of children first, which is the most important aspect in the debate.
Ba maith liom fáilte a chur roimh an Áire agus fáilte a chur roimh an tuarascáil seo.
The report is very timely and necessary. I intend to dwell on the aspect of putting children first, regardless of whether the child is still in the mother's womb or in this bad world. At present, we are reacting to a particular situation. It is fashionable now to highlight abuses in the past, particularly in relation to orphanages, nuns and priests. However, we all grew up in that age.
I grew up in the 1930s and 1940s and we all knew this was going on, and not just in orphanages and convents but in many homes. There were also some savage national school teachers. I regularly say a prayer for my two teachers. My third class teacher walked three miles to school every day and was never sick. I do not remember her ever being anything other than a mother to us. Our last exercise before we left third class was to write a letter home and address an envelope — we did not have envelopes, of course, but we drew a square on a copy book page. She said she wanted us to be able to write a letter home when we left school and had to go to England, America or elsewhere. I wonder how many children in third class today could write a letter home — they could only make contact by telephone.
I had the same teacher in the senior boys' school until the year before I left. He was fairly sharp but he was very straight. He was a great teacher, although anyone who missed lessons knew about it. He was a great man. God grant the two of them peace in heaven.
I realise now I had a great education and home. I thought it was poor at the time but it was rich. Many of the mothers of children who went into orphanages in those days — at least those I knew from my part of the country — got work in Dublin as domestics. They took their children out of the orphanages every Saturday or Sunday. When they accumulated a few pounds they bought houses in Dublin and reared their children. It was not all one way — there were some very good mothers in those days.
Many mothers had their children adopted. I have not read in any newspaper or heard on any television programme about any adopted child receiving anything but the best of care. They all received at least second level education, and many of them went on to third level. That is also true of the children who were adopted in America. They were sent to great homes. The priests and nuns of the time, who should be given credit for what they did well, conducted research and made contact with priests and nuns in the US. That is a fact which no one can deny.
I wonder how we will be judged in the year 2020. Today we send 4,000 or 5,000 unborn children to be aborted in London. How will our successors judge us? We are closing our eyes to that. Cura is doing a good job as they care about children from conception onwards. Those girls do not go for abortions of their own free will; our society is pushing them in that direction, just as the society of the 1940s pushed them into orphanages. We occasionally see reunions of mothers and children on television. Some of those mothers require counselling 25 and 30 years later. What counselling services will be needed in 2020 to deal with the trauma suffered by girls today?
Let us really put children first. In 1990, "First Call for Children", the world declaration on the survival, protection and development of children, was published. It stated:
We have gathered at the world summit on children to undertake a joint commitment and to make an urgent universal appeal to give every child a better future. Second, the children of the world are innocent, vulnerable and dependent. They are also curious, active and full of hope. Their time should be one of joy and peace, of playing, learning and growing. Their future should be shaped in harmony and co-operation. Their lives should be mature, so as to broaden their perspectives and gain new experiences.
How much of that has been put into practice in the last six years? That book is worth reading.
This matter has been one of my hobbyhorses for the past 20 years. The three most important things a child needs are time, care and love. How many of us today have time to spend with our children? We give them care by remote control through a third party. Do we have time to give them love? I watched an eye opening programme on BBC television last night called "Modern Times". It featured children born into very wealthy homes with lots of carpets, furniture and toys. Their parents were career people who could not give them time or love. A birthday party was shown which was attended by business people. The mother had the child on her knee and the child had a face — to use an old phrase — which would turn back a funeral. The child wanted to go back to its nanny, whom it called "Mammy".
What about the father?
The child called the chef "Daddy". The child did not know its parents. This sad situation is also happening in Ireland.
We pay child minders £1 an hour. An organisation should be put in place and child minders should be paid a proper wage. This subject came up on Marion Finucane's radio programme the other day. A woman said that parents are adopting the yellow pack principle for child minding — the first child is minded for £10 a day and they pay an extra £3 to have the second one minded.
Our society does not have time to look after children. I appeal to people to put their children first. All children are born as loving, innocent creatures. All of us with children and grandchildren know how children love to be picked up, hugged and kissed. No money can buy that love. Putting children in front of the television and giving them money to buy videos and sweets is not the way to care for them. We have to put time and love into looking after them. If we did that, there would be much less need for mandatory reporting.
The poor bread man who brought the letter from the orphanage has been castigated by people who ask: "Why did he not do something about it?". That letter did not have to be delivered for people to know what was happening. Everybody knew what was happening in certain places. However, let us look at what happened to the majority of the girls who came out of the orphanage. The girl featured in the documentary left the orphanage and went over to England to become a nurse and a worthy member of society. Many of the girls from the orphanage got married and are rearing good families. The orphanage had its obstacles and its bad points, but it also had its good points.
We are living in a time when it is fashionable to attack nuns, priests and brothers. The Department of Education and lay people knew what was happening in the orphanage but they did nothing about it. The same thing was happening in private and public schools and in institutions in England, Scotland and Wales. It was not just happening among the religious; it was happening in all strata of society and every stratum must carry the blame for those days.
We are now living in what I call the CBC society — the compensation and blame culture. Can we blame somebody? Can we get compensation? "Blame" and "compensation" are the current buzzwords. This is why we must be careful with mandatory reporting. It might and it might not have a place. We saw a recent case in England where a schoolmaster put two boys in a football team and they subsequently accused him of sexual abuse. It took two years to prove his innocence. He is back teaching. But, in the eyes of the public, is he free? Does the old saying — there is never smoke without fire — always apply? That is the danger. We must provide good safeguards because we cannot have innocent people misquoted and mistreated.
On the other hand, I appreciate Senator O'Toole's point that school teachers are in an awful situation at present. They are between a rock and a hard place — if they report they are wrong and if they do not report they are wrong. We live in a society that has great 20:20 hindsight. We ask why did they not do this or that. I remember a child fell in a school in Grange some years ago. The teachers brought the child home and that night the child had to be brought to hospital. While I was in a local garage I could hear people saying: "The school should have done so-and-so". An old man who was listening spoke up. "How long was the child at home before it was brought to hospital?" The people replied that the child had been brought home at lunch time and had to be brought to hospital at about 8 p.m. that evening. "What did the parents do from lunch time to 8 p.m.?" the man asked. We expect teachers and others to do everything, but what are parents doing? They have a large responsibility too.
The Senator has one minute left.
I could speak for an hour on this subject.
The Minister of State must take a hard look at mandatory reporting and he is wise not to decide for or against it today. He is also wise to have consultations about it. We must be careful not to blacken and destroy people's careers in our rush to do good. It is fashionable today to accuse people of something or other and we must be careful that we do not end up damaging both the child and the professional. It is a sad situation that a doctor today cannot examine a child or an adult without having somebody standing in the next room keeping guard. We are living in a terrible society of fear. If one sees a child getting into trouble one is afraid to run and pick them up or to do anything with them because we are living in a culture of fear. It is a difficult situation.
I do not have time to discuss the health boards but they have been doing a good job since they took over. The North-Western Health Board has a record of which it can be proud. It is easy to jump on the bandwagon about the Western Health Board. Will those who say the report should be published in full set up a fund or take out an insurance policy to guarantee that the health board or any of its officials will not be robbed of house and home if some of the accusations are not accurate? It is a legal minefield.
Those who ask people to make things known and who insist that they have a right to know should put their money where their mouths are. Let them put up the money to defend people who might be wrongfully put out of a job or destroyed. We are living in a compensation and blame culture — we must be very careful about everything we say and do.
I am delighted to have the opportunity to speak on this important document produced by the Minister of State and his Department. I compliment the Minister of State on his great work on child care, his implementation of various sections of the Child Care Act and his commitment to complete the full implementation of that Act by the end of 1996.
The Minister of State and his staff have been courageous and responsible in publishing this report. The fact that it has been published so quickly is also highly commendable. This is a glorious opportunity for all parties involved in this area — I hope they will study this document thoroughly — to put forward their proposals and concerns and outline the issues they believe should be addressed. Following the process of consultation, the Minister of State and his Department will be in a position to put in place a regime that will provide further protection for children.
Mandatory reporting is an extremely difficult issue for all people concerned and the personal nature of the subject means that it is also extremely sensitive. I am delighted that the Minister of State and the Department have recognised that the primary concern is the protection and support of children. In publishing this report they have highlighted that issue. Hard decisions and taking courageous and responsible positions will be involved in coming to a satisfactory conclusion about the issue of mandatory reporting.
It is interesting to note that the Law Reform Commission report and the Kilkenny incest report make similar recommendations in some areas while in other areas they do not agree. That is understandable. The Law Reform Commission had a wide brief to examine, yet it only made specific recommendations about child sexual abuse. The Kilkenny report makes recommendations about all child abuse. That report was dealing with a specific case which involved not only child sexual abuse but also child physical abuse and, indeed, psychological abuse. It is understandable why it made wider recommendations than the Law Reform Commission report. It is important that both reports are closely examined. A combination of the recommendations of both could, at the end of the day, result in producing specific guidelines and proposals regarding mandatory reporting.
When discussing mandatory reporting we must, first and foremost, consider the position of the child. As Senator O'Sullivan said, the first person many children will talk to will be either their teacher or a close relative within the family who is not necessarily living in the home. It is important to bear in mind that there is a difference between child sexual abuse and incest within the home and abuse from a source outside the home. The circumstances of each case can vary and present their own difficulties. Because of the position of the family in the Constitution and in society, we are reluctant and slow to intervene in family problems.